- Many countries apathetic to importing agro products lacking health certificates
- Draft law being prepared to form quality assessment body
- EPB to issue export health certificates temporarily
- Quality certificates from government bodies mostly unacknowledged abroad
- $862mn agro goods exported in 2019-20
- On December 18, 2016, Cosmap (BD) Ltd applied to the commerce ministry for a "health certificate" to export crude sesame oil.
The application then travelled to two more government agencies – Bangladesh Food Safety Authority and Plant Quarantine Wing of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE).
Finally, the food safety authority issued Cosmap with one. But the agency did it for the first and last time as there had been no regulations allowing it to certify salubrity of exportable agro and food products.
Many countries, including in the European Union (EU), are expressing apathy towards importing foreign agricultural, fisheries and animal and processed food products without export health certificates.
In this context, the government plans to form a specialised institution, akin to India's Export Inspection Council, to issue mandatory health certificates against these products prior to their export.
A draft law is being prepared to establish the agency. Before it takes shape, the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) will issue such certificates temporarily. An inter-ministerial meeting was held in this regard on August 13, with the commerce ministry's Additional Secretary (Export) Obaidul Azam in the chair.
The Export Health Certificate, a document issued by the country of origin of export goods, states that the item is certified as suitable for human consumption and meets such safety standards as required for export trade.
Obaidul Azam said the new agency, to be set up along the lines of the Indian process, will work under the commerce ministry.
"The EPB will issue health certificates provisionally based on product tests at an accredited laboratory."
In the absence of a specific law for issuing health certificates for agro products, Bangladesh is at rock bottom in terms of export earnings from vegetables, fruits and fish, although it ranks among the top 10 countries worldwide in their production.
In spite of having a big potential, export of these products is also not being bolstered as "quality certificates" issued by various government organisations are mostly not accepted abroad.
Commerce Secretary Md Jafar Uddin told The Business Standard that many countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia, are getting a big pie by exporting agricultural and food products, but Bangladesh's earning from this sector remains insignificant.
This is because of the country's inability to ensure globally acceptable standards of these products although they enjoy duty-free access to various countries, including the EU and Canada, he added.
"Bangladesh is going to graduate to a developing country riding on only readymade garment exports. Dependence on a single product is risky for an economy. So, the decision [to set up a quality assessment body] is being made as part of various initiatives taken by the commerce ministry to diversify our export basket," Jafar said.
Huge potential yet to be tapped
Currently, Bangladesh is the third largest producer of natural fish and vegetables globally. Besides, the country is fifth in farmed fish production, second in jackfruit, seventh in mango and eighth in guava, according to ministry officials.
Despite a big demand across Asia and Europe, exports of these products are not possible as they are not produced in compliance with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The other major reason is global non-acceptance of certificates issued by the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute (BSTI), Bangladesh Accreditation Board (BAB) and the DAE's Plant Quarantine Wing, they say.
Hence, it is necessary to ensure quality certification in accordance with the standards of the United States and Europe for the export of various products, including agricultural goods, vegetables, fruits, processed foods, frozen fish and meat, shrimp, they also say.
They are of the view that it is not possible for existing government agencies to ensure such certification. Therefore, the commerce ministry has decided to set up a quality assessment body to certify the salubrity of only these export products.
Health and safety related controls and regulations were imposed on foreign trade with renewed vigour after the formation of the World Trade Organisation and the passage of the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures in 1995.
Aimed at protecting the interest of consumers, multiple exporters across the world have been affected by the agreement's strict guidelines. Bangladeshi exporters too initially faced difficulties because of multiple inspections, rejections and recalls under the stricter standards mandated by the agreement.
According to ministry officials, Bangladesh's inability to meet the standards set by different countries is the major obstacle to the export of vegetables, powdered spices, fish and processed foods. Although exporters ship these products abroad on the basis of quality certificates obtained from various private labs, the importing countries return the export invoices in many cases.
According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), agricultural products worth $862 million were exported from Bangladesh in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Of the amount, $164 million was earned from vegetables, $0.49 million from fruits, $193.7 million from dried foods, $33.2 million from spices and $456.1 million from live and frozen fish.
Certificates of govt agencies not accepted abroad
The BSTI, an agency under the Ministry of Industries, issues quality certificates for processed foods produced in industrial factories. Not even neighbouring India accepts BSTI certificates for any Bangladeshi products, except for just 21 goods.
Additionally, many European countries have banned import of many Bangladeshi agricultural and food products despite their having BSTI certificates. Of late, the EU countries have stopped importing turmeric powder from Bangladesh owing to the presence of excess lead in it.
The DAE's Plant Quarantine Wing issues export quality certificates for agricultural products and fruits, but its certification too is not accepted in many cases. Recently, consignments of betel leaves and potatoes with export certificates have been returned to the country.
For a long time, food products have been certified by the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority. The body does not have its own laboratory and issues certificates after assessing products in the lab of another organisation. Against this backdrop, the institution has informed the commerce ministry that it will not issue such certificates any longer.
Worsening matters, certificates issued by Islamic Foundation on halal product exports are also not up to international standards. As a result, companies have to export products depending on International Standards Organisation certificates.
Officials of Bangladesh Agro-Processors Association said they had faced challenges while exporting some agricultural products, including potatoes, to some European countries.
Due to excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers in agriculture, Bangladesh's agro-products cannot pass quality tests, they noted.
Appropriate safety measures should be ensured at every step, including setting up of international standard factories, using advanced technology, packaging, storage and supply, to improve and maintain the quality of processed food products, they suggested.
AFM Fakhrul Islam Munshi, president of Bangladesh Agro-Processors Association, told The Business Standard that internationally acceptable health certificates are required for the export of agricultural and processed products.
"If the commerce ministry decides to issue a certificate for this purpose by setting up a separate laboratory and verifying the quality, it will play a positive role," he said.
ATM Azizul Akil, senior vice president of Bangladesh-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, "China has met our demand for duty-free export facilities in their market to minimise the huge trade deficit. In order to increase exports by utilising this facility, we have to emphasise improving the efficiency and quality of our products.
"Otherwise, Bangladesh will not get the benefit of duty-free facilities on 97 percent of its products."
China has a big demand for freshwater fish, which is imported from Vietnam, he said, adding that Bangladesh has the opportunity to export fish and poultry products.
"To utilise the opportunity, we will have to strictly ensure quality," he opined.